Oh dear. If day one and day two of our Xbox One vs. PlayStation 4 coverage caused a bit of a flare up in console war tension, then day three has its work cut out for it. Today we'll be comparing and contrasting the two next-gen consoles' online subscriber services. That's right, Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus going head to head and only one will survive. That's a joke, fanboys. Obviously no matter what conclusion we come to today both services are certain to prove high-quality. We're talking video games here, everyone.
Considering what vastly different services both Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus were on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, today's comparison really only viable starting with the next-gen platforms. Sony will beginning to require PlayStation Plus for multiplayer titles, where previously the service was entirely based around providing free games and sales. Comparing the services on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 wouldn't really make any sense at all.
Unfortunately, despite the parallel services now offered between two, we're going to have to go into speculative territory in this comparison. We did this a bit yesterday with controllers, as I haven't actually played a full game with either controller, but today's a whole 'nother deal. Specifically, we have no idea what kind of effect a subscriber-based system will have on Sony's PlayStation multiplayer services. I just wanted to mention that before someone doesn't read this far and calls me out in the comments about it.
I wouldn't have it any other way. Welcome to the console wars, everyone! It's time to get excited for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
Day 3: Online Services
Part 1: The Players
As usual I want to start off the comparison by giving both Microsoft and Sony an open space to pitch both of their services. Basically, that means we find their respective sales and registration websites and analyze their buzz line. Usually these buzz lines give broader perspective than intended, showing both what Microsoft and Sony are selling as a focus of the service, but also what's not.
One note before we get started. It looks like Sony hasn't begun to advertise the full PlayStation Plus service for the PlayStation 4 yet. That means they're not "pitching" the multiplayer requirement yet, instead focusing still on the free games. That said, their buzz line should still be adequate for our purposes.
Microsoft on Xbox Live Gold:
"Xbox Live Gold is your ticket to the most exciting social entertainment network in the world on both Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Experience unrivaled multiplayer for the hottest exclusive games, HD movies and TV shows, live events, music and sports. Along with premiere entertainment apps, Internet Explorer and Skype on your TV. With Xbox Live Gold, you can stay connected with friends, family and more than 48 million Xbox Live members around the world.
And your Xbox Live Gold membership extends across Xbox 360 and Xbox One. So if you are an existing Xbox Live Gold member, you are good to go."
Sony on PlayStation Plus:
"Join today to get a full year of Instant Game Collection access, huge discounts of up to 75% on PlayStation®Store, and much more. You’ll get 18 free games right when you join, 12 for the PlayStation 3 system and 6 for the PS Vita system. You’ll get even more games for free each month, and they’re yours to play for as long as you’re a member."
I spy with my little eye a hugely significant selling point for Microsoft that Sony doesn't address in any of their PlayStation Plus marketing material: number of subscribers. 48 million people currently subscribe to Xbox Live for a $1.25 billion in 2011, I believe. PlayStation Plus profit during that same period was about a tenth of that. Sony says they're predicting that when the PlayStation 4 launches they'll also be collecting around $1.2 billion from PlayStation Plus, which means they also expect say 48 million subscribers. I say neither platform should be making any early guesses yet.
Still, whatever the math may be, Microsoft still has their subscriber number as a sales point. It's a good one, no, great point to have. An established community with each player having a friends list that constantly pulls at unsubscribed gamers to recommit. Sure, Sony has something similar, but they've still got a lot to prove.
Meanwhile Sony is also pitching their strongest asset, which is a commitment to provide free games each and every month to subscribers. Microsoft has only just implemented a similar service named "Games With Gold," but has yet to announce any plans for it to come over to the Xbox One. As such, Sony has a huge advantage in this regard.
Therein lies the crux of this head-to-head. The Xbox One offers a network that's proven reliable, the largest console subscriber-base in existence, up against Sony's PlayStation 4 service that has much to prove, but also offers of value in return -- games. Is there enough value in the trust gamers have in Xbox Live gold to compete with and actual monetary value associated with free games? Hmph, we're just getting started.
Part 2: Exclusive Features
Next on the list is what features are included with each service's subscription. Imagine opening a brand new box with a console inside of it and pluggin it in. These are the features that are inaccessible until a subscription has been added to the account. This isn't a list of online features accessible to everyone, it's just what's available to subscribers. We'll go onto services available to all console users later.
What we want to watch out for here is new features that consoles haven't had before, shared features between both services, as well as features that one service may offer for free as opposed to requiring a subscription for. Let's jump right in:
- Online Multiplayer - "Enjoy multiplayer competitive and cooperatives games via the internet. "
- Instant Game Collection - "Access to a regular, curated selection of titles made exclusively available to PlayStation Plus members at no additional cost. The PS4 titles available on Instant Game Collection at PS4′s launch in North America will include Resogun and Contrast."
- Discounts - "Members will have access to exclusive discounts on PlayStation Store."
- Online Game Save - "Members may automatically (or manually) upload game save files to Online Game Save Storage for safekeeping. Up to 1GB of cloud storage will be allocated to your PS4 save files."
- Other benefits - "Early access to exclusive game content, automatic game patch downloads and installation, and more."
Xbox Live Gold:
- Online Multiplayer - "An unrivaled multiplayer service provides intense action for all Xbox Live Gold members."
- Entertainment - "Experience premium entertainment apps including movies, TV shows, music, sports and more."
- Internet Explorer - "Internet Explorer makes it easy for all Xbox Live Gold members to browse the web. With Kinect, use your voice or gestures to navigate. Or use your phone or tablet with Xbox SmartGlass."
- Discounts - "All Xbox Live Gold members can take advantage of special deals and offers. Xbox One users can save even more through exclusive discounts."
- NFL Content - "Xbox Live Gold members will enjoy NFL content in amazing new ways. Coming soon."
- OneGuide - "Xbox Live Gold members with Xbox One can experience a customized view of what's on TV, and see what's trending within the Xbox Live community."
- Game DVR - "Record your wildest moments and most awesome achievements to share with your friends on Xbox Live."
- Skype - "Xbox Live Gold members with Xbox One can chat with friends using Skype on their TV."
- SmartMatch - "The all-new SmartMatch system gives Xbox One faster, smarter ways to pair players online."
Again, what should be readily apparent is that Microsoft requires Xbox Live Gold for basically all of its online features, where while Sony is requiring Plus for multiplayer games they don't require it for all online features. In fact, let's actually provide a short list of features that Sony provides access to without a subscription that Microsoft doesn't:
- Certain free-to-play games
- Party-chat (cross-game)
- Entertainment services that may require a third-party subscription, like Netflix
- Uploading or streaming content via the console, like with Twitch
- Web browser
Microsoft will continue to require a paid subscription for the above services, much like they did with the Xbox 360. In other words, Microsoft is putting almost all of their online content behind a pay-wall, while Sony is not. Obviously Microsoft believed that this was an adequate way to encourage people to subscribe on the Xbox 360 and that the strategy will continue to work on Xbox One. Sony's strategy of providing a more open service may persuade some to buy a PlayStation 4 instead of an Xbox One, but will they pay for that in less subscribers?
Finally, we have to look at where those subscriber fees are going. Like mentioned before, both services are expecting over a billion dollars in profit a year, so hopefully the month is going towards some exciting content. Sony looks to put some of that money towards offering free games like Resogun and Contrast. Microsoft, on the other hand, looks to be focusing on other types of content. Microsoft has partnered with the NFL to provide exclusive content, they've also purchased Skype, and who knows what SmartMatch really is. Different types of value for different end-users.
I almost, just almost gave today's win to the PlayStation 4 straight away. It's simple really, considering that PlayStation Plus is not only cheaper than Xbox Live Gold ($50 a year vs. $60), but offers free, high-quality games every single month. If Microsoft had announced that "Games With Gold" was coming to Xbox One we could start a conversation about how the service has proven exceptionally disappointing in its opening months, while PS Plus is continuously on-point, but they haven't. Not even a hint. Add on that Sony is allowing a ton of content to users without a subscription and at first glance there's no comparison. NFL content? Give me a break.
Then it hits you. Think back to the past years on the PlayStation 3 where the online service has been notoriously terrible, where the network has been down, where firmware upgrades have prevented gamers from accessing games for hours at a time. How could I have even considered giving the win to Sony? Sure, Microsoft hasn't exactly made it clear why everyone has to pay money each month to access multiplayer games, but I'll give them this -- it works. Matchmaking on consoles in general is rather dreadful, but that's never been Microsoft's fault. At least I can access matchmaking.
The result is an unfortunate stalemate of expectations. I expect Microsoft to prove, which they never did with the Xbox 360, why gamers have to pay each and every month to access game features that come free to PC gamers, whether that be through free games, deals, or the most exceptional multiplayer experience on console available. Sony, on the other hand, has to prove they can create a social, multiplayer environment that is thriving and won't simply be a constant headache year-round.
Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 will be further entwined with the internet than any console prior. That comes expectations. Gamers will be spending hundreds of dollars up front, plus their online connection fee, plus an additional fee to play the games that they buy online. Prove to us that our subscriptions are worth our investment. Until that happens, it's rather fitting that no winner has been declared in this category.